Street art festival aims to establish Detroit as a destination for augmented reality murals

The idea of Detroit as a place where technology and art come together is a well worn one, with the automotive industry as the obvious driving force. It happens every day here, engineers and designers collaborating on high-performance machines that can look and feel incredible. Even President Joe Biden made time in his schedule to visit this year’s North American International Auto Show, his excitement to step into a new Corvette belying his years. Art, technology — it can make you feel young again.

In the art world itself, technology has increasingly become part of the conversation as of late. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, have created a new market for artists to sell their works, where blockchain technology allows digital assets to be bought, sold, and, most importantly, verified. Detroit is pushing the boundaries here, too, with the art organization Hygienic Dress League offering shares of their corporation as NFTs. As reported in Model D, “shareholders would be entitled to 4 percent of the royalties of any additional sales of the NFT.” Their application filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission is believed to be the first of its kind.

An upstart company on Detroit’s westside, where Warrendale meets Dearborn, is using technology to push art in new directions, incorporating augmented reality (AR) into street art and public murals. The start-up, Electrifly Collective, has launched a DIY art festival to showcase the work they’ve done, and the artwork they’ve helped bring to life. The Electrifly Detroit Augmented Reality Mural Festival Presented by BrandXR runs now through Monday, Oct. 31.

A Detroit showpiece

There are currently nine murals that make up Electrifly Detroit, found everywhere from 8 Mile to downtown, and many points in between. Additional augmented reality murals can be found in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, and suburban Sterling Heights, for those looking for a road trip. There is no set schedule for the festival, and organizers invite the general public to grab a drink from their favorite local coffee shop and explore the city at their leisure.

“Rising Strong” by artist Hubert Massey, found at Karasi Education Center in Boston Edison.
How it works is this: Guests download the free Electrifly Augmented Reality Art app to their smartphones and visit each mural. At each site, simply hold up your phone to the mural and watch the still, painted walls come alive. Each mural offers a different experience, with some even becoming interactive. The mural in Sterling Heights, for example, “Trail Blazer” by artist Wendy Popko alongside Ventimiglia Italian Foods, allows users to play a soccer game with the characters painted on the wall.

“Detroit is becoming one of the most densely populated areas for AR murals and we're really trying to make it a showpiece for augmented reality murals and for the work that we're doing at Electrifly, but also a showpiece for the city of Detroit,” says Moody Mattan, CEO of Ann Arbor-based BrandXR. Electrifly Collective utilizes BrandXR’s no-code AR platform in its work and serves as a showpiece for the technology. The two companies are related; Moody’s brothers, Malik and Zach Mattan, are co-founders and co-CEOs of Electrifly.

“So you're probably familiar with the immersive Van Gogh-type of experiences where they charge you to go in. It’s just not something that most people in Detroit are going to afford and be able go to. This is that same level of experience, probably better to be quite frank, and we're giving it to the people of Detroit for free. All you need is a smartphone and you can have these really cool experiences.”

Electrifly Collective has its roots in BrandXR, the company Moody started after working in the AR industry in Silicon Valley. Malik and Zach started Electrifly Collective under a different name as a merchandising company. Soon, the two would become intertwined, with Electrifly showing off the AR technology that BrandXR develops.

Malik Mattan, Moody Mattan, and Zach Mattan (L to R). Photo taken at 2018 Detroit Startup Week. (Courtesy of BrandXR)
“Moody moved home and we kind of put our heads together, thinking how can we incorporate this technology into what we're doing with the merchandising company. It kind of snowballed from there into what it is now,” says Zach.

One of their goals is to establish Detroit as an augmented reality-meets-art destination; Miami’s world-renowned Art Basel is a consistent reference point. BrandXR has some pretty big clients, with NASA being its very first, and, following a $1.5 million fundraising round led by Morgan Stanley, the company continues to grow. The work being accomplished in Detroit serves as a calling card, of sorts.

“We've pitched some pretty cool companies about having these experiences. We would love to be like, Oh, you want to see what we're all about? Come take a flight to Detroit and spend a couple of days experiencing Electrifly Detroit. And then they'll see what we're really all about,” Moody says. “That'll be really cool, to get to that point where it's like, You want to see what AR murals are like? Don't book a meeting with us, just book a flight to Detroit. Come check them out.”

‘The next big thing’

Electrifly Detroit’s roster of artists is an impressive one, including locally- and world-renowned artists like Armageddon Beachparty, Chris Dyer, El Cappy, Ghostbeard, Olivia Guterson, Hubert Massey, Patch Whisky, and Phybr. To be on the forefront of this new technology is an exciting proposition for the artists, who work closely with the Electrifly team in the development of the AR components of their pieces.

“I’m super excited to go into this digital art world, it’s the next level of art,” says artist El Cappy, whose “WARM” mural can be found on the side of The Scott development in Brush Park. “It’s definitely going to be the next big thing.”

The Mattan brothers began marrying technology with art with their first AR mural in 2018. They have some exciting announcements to come, they say, although not ready to divulge specifics just yet. But look for their catalog of AR murals to expand over the next year, further establishing Detroit as a destination for the medium. It could become the next big thing, as El Cappy says. It’s definitely Detroit.

“I think this comes from our Detroit DNA. We grew up with these murals all around us, and street art all around us. And then I went off to Silicon Valley and got into tech. After that it was like, How can we bring that technology back to this really cool, most basic form of art; street art, you grab a spray can and go create,” Moody says. “I think it’s a really cool mix and kind of a metaphor for Detroit, mixing the old with the new. You have the oldest art form on Earth and we're mixing it up now. It's become the newest art form.”

A map of the Electrifly Collective’s AR murals is available online.

This Street View series on Detroit's commercial corridors is made possible with support from the Ford Foundation.
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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.